Getting sick is no fun. Whether it’s the coughing and sneezing of cold season or the vomiting and diarrhea of a stomach virus, an illness, even a short one, can leave us feeling as listless as a rag doll. No wonder we want to avoid all that unpleasantness by discovering the magic bullet to boost our body’s ability to fight the good fight.
If only it were that simple.
“Everyone has been trying to figure out the one way to not get sick at all,” admits Dr. Stephen Avallone, an internal medicine physician with the University of Miami Health System. “But no one has.”
That’s because there are so many virus and bacterial infections that coming up with a singular quick fix is impossible. In addition, the immune system is precisely that — “a system with several parts, not just one element” that can be adjusted, Dr. Avallone adds. Even researchers find it difficult to conduct controlled experiments to figure out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to fighting off germs. Too many moving parts, too many factors affect our ability to fend off danger.
Yet, our immune system, when it’s not compromised, is an awesome 24/7 fighting force ready to battle outside danger, and for most healthy people, it does a good job of eventually winning the war. But as in all wars, there are casualties: achy joints, sore throats, stomach cramps, sneezing, fever, and fatigue.
Before we can figure out how to give the immune system the proper fighting equipment, a short biology lesson may be in order: Our body’s army works in a fairly straightforward way. When it notices the enemy, it releases white blood cells (lymphocytes) to fight the infection. Each kind of lymphocyte has its role — making specific antibodies, killing the infectious micro-organisms, releasing chemicals (cytokines) to serve as cellular messengers. In fact, our immune system is so efficient that after it beats back the invaders, the antibodies it has produced will prevent us from getting sick from that particular infection again.
To help our immune system do its job, Dr. Avallone has a two-prong approach: prevention and treatment. So far, the only action that can stop you from getting sick in the first place is to get immunized. “Immunizations,” he says, “have been proven to work. Everything else doesn’t really have a direct impact.”
Vaccines work because they carry a tiny bit of virus or bacteria that when taken (either orally, nasal-sprayed or by injection) prompts your immune system to unleash the body’s germ-killing soldiers. But because it takes days for the antibodies to act, doctors recommend you get immunized — especially for the flu — early in the season. (The seasonal flu vaccine does not protect against all influenza viruses, but only against those that research shows will be most common during the upcoming season. However, getting vaccinated might help ease the symptoms anyway if you happen to contract the other influenza viruses, Dr. Avallone says.)
In addition to getting vaccinated, making healthy choices can keep your immune system in tip-top fighting shape, allowing it to perform its role. Here’s what you can do:
- Aim for 7 to 8 hours of sleep. Those Zzzzs help your body produce antibodies to fight infection. One study showed that volunteers who got a full night sleep after a hepatitis A vaccine had twice the number of antibodies than those who didn’t sleep enough. Another study, published in the journal Sleep, linked sleep deprivation to a compromised immune system.
- Eat a diet heavy on fruits and vegetables, whole grains and fiber. Though few studies show how nutrition affects the immune system directly, we do now that deficiencies in zinc, folic acid, vitamins (B, C, and D) and other nutrients can alter animals’ immune response. Dr. Avallone is not a fan of supplements because there’s no hard evidence to back their effectiveness on otherwise healthy adults. For example, Emergen-C® is designed to boost your immune system by using different B vitamins as well as Vitamin C and other nutrients. But research on these vitamins’ usefulness to cut the duration of a cold or prevent it all together is mixed. Taking at least 200 mg of C daily reduces the risk of cold on adults who are under high levels of physical stress, not necessarily on healthy adults. As for the B vitamins, these seem to work to boost immunity only for those who suffer from Insufficient levels of vitamins B6 and/or B12. More research needs to be done on their effect on healthy adults.
Zinc is another touted cold-fighting supplement, but as with extra doses of vitamins, the research is inconclusive.
- Wash your hands regularly. Doing so for 20 seconds with soap and water has been shown to reduce diarrheal disease-associated deaths as well as foodborne disease and respiratory infections.
- Tame stress. When you’re stressed, your body feels it’s under attack and acts by producing antibodies and the hormone cortisol. That’s good in the short-term. But when you’re under chronic stress, cortisol actually tries to shut down your immune response. It also increases inflammation, which ups the risk of infections.
- Exercise helps strengthen your immune system partly because it reduces inflammation and protects against infection. The recommendation is of at least 150 minutes of moderately intense physical activity per week, including brisk walking, dancing, even housekeeping, or gardening.
- Limit your alcohol intake, if you drink at all. A published review of studies in 2007 showed that high doses of alcohol are associated with an increased incidence of infectious disease.
“It’s not about doing one thing or another,” Dr. Avallone says. “It’s a way of life. It’s a lifestyle.”
Of course, sometimes no matter what you do, a cold or flu will strong arm you. In that case, Dr. Avallone suggests you rest, get plenty of sleep and drink lots of fluids — all those tried-and-true remedies that were your grandmother’s favorites.
Chicken soup is not a bad idea either. “It may work as a placebo,” Dr. Avallone says, “and it does no harm. It provides fluids and protein” And you can’t beat the taste.